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Practical Pointers for Planning Your Garden

The seed catalogs are here so spring must be around the corner! It’s time to turn the dreams of January into the plans for a new or renewed garden in your yard. Read this article to gain some practical pointers for planning your garden. Let’s get planning!

Joy Johnson, Master Gardener

Practical Pointers for Planning Your Garden

It’s only February but you probably have already received some seed catalogs in the mail reminding us that spring will soon reappear. As we look longingly out our windows, it’s a great time to start thinking about a new or improved garden for your yard. A new garden can replace an existing garden, enlarge or re-shape an existing garden or carve out a completely new space in a neglected part of your property. When designing a new garden, there are some general design principles and other things you should consider. 

I am old school and prefer to do my thinking with a pencil and a large sheet of paper. It’s a good idea to sketch out the area you have in mind. Ask yourself some basic questions as you sketch. 


Is the new garden area on a slope? If it is, will you need a retaining wall or terracing? For example, we designed a new garden along the east side of our yard. It has a gentle downhill slope. We wanted to add some contour to our flat front yard and create a visual barrier to block the view of the side of our neighbor’s house. We needed a retaining wall to add height and keep the garden on our side of the land. The wall ended up being 30 feet long and 4 feet wide on each end. It is 4 feet high and made from bricks and large boulders. We filled it with soil and made a small hill, with two depressions and an S shaped curve along the front side for visual variety.


How much daylight does the area receive? Watch the area over several months and make note of any areas shaded by buildings or trees for more than 6 hours a day. An area that is in the shade for at least 6 hours a day will only support plants designed to grow in the shade. Sun loving plants need a minimum of 6 hours of full sunlight. If you are just starting this process in February, you will need to remember back to June, July, and August to determine the amount of sunlight your spot will receive during the summer. This can be very different than in the winter months due to the angle of the sun and day length. 

Specimen Plants

Do you have any specimen plants in the area that you want to highlight (or plant new in the area)? How can you set it, or them, off? Some ideas are to highlight a specimen bush or tree with a contrasting color of mulch or a contrasting low growing ground cover. We wanted to highlight a weeping pussy willow, which has an interesting shape, but is basically green the entire growing season, so we planted purple Bugleweed around the base. The Bugleweed has tiny purple flower spikes during June, July and into August, so it looks like the Weeping Pussywillow is floating on a purple carpet.

Color Palette

What’s your color palette? When designing a garden that includes blooming flowers and shrubs, it’s pleasing to the eye to group similar colors together and to plant numerous plants of the same variety. This is called color block gardening and is effective if you have a large area to fill. For example, since our area is long and narrow, we planted one section with weigela which has burgundy leaves and pink flowers for most of the summer. Around one side of the weigela we planted Asian Lilies in a variety of pink hues. Beneath them and trailing down the small hill we planted a low growing creeping sedum which gets tiny pink flowers. This leads us to another design element you should consider.

Plant Size

Plant size. It is pleasing to the eye to have a variety of heights in your garden. You should use the Rule of Thirds. The plants at the back of your garden should be two-thirds taller than the plants in front of them. In the example given in number 4 above, the Weigela are taller than the Asian Lilies and they are both taller than the sedum. They are in the same color palette as the peonies. The creeping juniper softens the edge of the rock boarder and anchors the color palette with a dark green. A variegated willow with its very pale pink spring leaves is a light back drop at the edge of the garden. Much taller Smokebushes with their burgundy, green leaves are two-thirds taller than the Weigela. 

Another example from our garden is the row of Arborvitae along the back of the garden that will eventually grow taller than the Ninebark, Forsythia and Weigela that are planted in front of them. In front of those bushes, we have planted a variety of shorter flowers, grasses, and creeping ground covers.

Soil Type

It is important to look at your soil type. That will be hard to do in February, but when spring comes, it’s a good idea to send in a sample of the soil from your garden area to the University of Minnesota. They will send you back a soil test report that will let you know if you need to add any phosphorus or Potassium to your area. If you google “soil testing University of Minnesota” you will find directions for submitting a sample.

Make a Sketch

As we looked through all our gardening catalogs and downloaded plant information from various websites, it was easier to visualize our ideas if we cut out the physical pictures of the shrubs and flowers we were considering and taped them on to our paper lay out. We used a 1” = 1’ scale, to get an idea of the size. After taping the pictures on our layout, we sketched a circle around the plant to show the size of the full-grown plant.

Be Flexible

Flexibility is the last element of design. A flat piece of paper and photos do a good job of preparing you for the final garden look, but the contour of the land will also affect how things look. We ended up redesigning a couple of areas and moving plants around in the spring when planting began to get the look we were going for. Also keep in mind that the mature size of a plant is very different than the seedling you first get from the nursery. Your garden may not look as full as you want it to until the plants have had a couple of years to grow and settle in.

Sensory Considerations

A couple of other considerations: plant plants with a pleasing fragrance near your front door or other heavily trafficked area, so people can enjoy them. Don’t plant ‘unwelcoming’ plants near your front or side doors. Things with thorns, spikes, trailing branches, or pungent smells are better suited to other areas. Some tall grasses make lovely swishing sounds when the wind blows through them, consider using those near an outdoor seating area or near an entry way for auditory variety.

There are many things to consider when planning a garden so enjoy the process. Choose one or two main goals or focus points (is this an edible garden or a cutting garden, or a garden to block an ugly view or a “native-plants-only” garden). Don’t let yourself get pulled off track by all the beautiful plants you see in the catalogs, online and at nurseries. Keep a narrow focus for the first year. You can always add more plants and move plants in the following years. That’s one of the fun things about gardening, plants are always changing and growing.

Photo Credit: Joy Johnson

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